Unscientific Unscientific America. Part 1.

In Unscientific America, Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum (hencefore M&K) assert that America is awash in a tsunami of scientific illiteracy.  They see this as a severe threat to Americans’ ability to make reasoned judgments about matters like vaccines and global warming, and to America’s preeminence in science.

Where does the problem come from? In an earlier book, The Republican War on Science, Mooney laid it largely at the door of political conservatives.  But, say M&K, we now have another enemy: the scientists themselves.  By our failure to reach out to the public and engage them, and by our hamhanded and ineffectual efforts when we do, we have missed the opportunity to make this a truly “scientific America.” In fact, scientists themselves have supposedly spurned the public, writing off efforts to improve scientific literacy because we see the public as dumb or intractable. As M&K say on their website:

“Yes, well, this whole mindset is precisely what we wrote a book against. The blame the public mindset. The it’s not our fault, we’re the smart people mindset.”

A lot of the blame, say the authors, rests on atheists-scientists like Richard Dawkins and P. Z. Myers, who, by supposedly forcing people to choose between science and faith, have driven them away from accepting science. The other implicit message is that scientist-atheists should stop “troubling their own house,” keeping quiet about their atheism.

Beyond requesting the silence of atheists, Mooney and Kirshenbaum propose various improvements in the public-relations skills of scientists.  Their main call is to train a new generation of scientists who are good not only at research, but at interacting with politicians, Hollywood movie producers, and the public.  And we should start celebrating the “hip, fun, trailblazing research pioneers” like Bonnie Bassler and Pardis Sabeti.

In the next few days I’ll publish a three-part review of the book, dealing, respectively, with the nature of the problem, who is to blame for it, and what the solutions are.  But I’ll start with my overall opinion of the book, which is that it is confused, tendentious, evanescent, and preachy.  It is a blog post blown up to book length.  Yes, there are some useful parts, in particular the emphasis on science communication and the need to reward those who are good at it. But these solutions are hardly new; indeed, I could find little in Unscientific America that has not been said, at length, elsewhere. And what is new—the accusation that scientists, in particular atheist-scientists, are largely responsible for scientific illiteracy—is asserted without proof.

This lack of data is the book’s main problem. For a book advocating science literacy, it offers surprisingly little evidence to support its claims. Yes, lots of facts and figures are thrown about—there are 65 pages of footnotes—but none of them strongly buttresses the three primary claims of the book:  first, that the dire problem of scientific illiteracy in this country is holding America back; second, that a main cause of this problem is the failure of scientists to communicate their trade but their simultaneous success in communicating their atheism; and third, that the authors’ solutions to the problem of scientific illiteracy are better than many others. Indeed, the statistics on science illiteracy, which show that it hasn’t changed much in thirty years, count against the author’s thesis that it is not only a growing problem but one that was once palpably improved by science popularizers but is now exacerbated by atheists. Finally, Unscientific America is marred by its tone of preachiness, in which the authors repeatedly, and annoyingly, give the impression that they alone know the true solution, and if we would just listen to them everything will be fine.  This would be an acceptable conclusion if they gave data supporting their contentions, but they don’t, and so we’re left weighing opinions rather than facts.

In the end, Unscientific America is a frame around a big fat empty space.

What’s the problem?

Is America scientifically illiterate? I suppose, from the viewpoint of a scientist, the answer is “yes.”  Repeated surveys (e.g., here) show that, compared to what we scientists would expect, Americans are surprisingly ignorant about scientific facts. As M&K note, only half of Americans know that the Earth goes around the Sun once per year, and many Americans don’t even understand what evolution is.

It’s unfortunate, then, that the authors open their book by describing the “furor over Pluto” — the public bafflement when, in 2006, astronomers stripped Pluto of its status as a full-fledged planet—to show the disconnect because the public and science.  Except to a few extremist Plutophiles, this affair was little more than a joke, a bit of public fun.   It hardly makes the case for a crippling science illiteracy.

Let’s take two more serious cases of science illiteracy, both of which M&K also mention: the vaccination debate and the global-warming controversy.  Are these problems due to public ignorance of the facts and/or to the failure of scientists to properly convey these facts? We don’t know.  The authors give no data, and, indeed, there are credible alternate hypotheses.  The most obvious of these is simply that people who oppose vaccinations and global warming have other agendas which make them less receptive to facts; these agendas could include religion, economic interests, and (in the case of vaccines) personal experience that, to some, trumps science. After all, many opponents of vaccines are educated, aware, and highly literate.  Here, as is common throughout the book, many factors could be responsible for observed patterns, but the authors assert without proof that one is predominant.

Indeed, statistics on the correlation between politics and positions on these issues suggests that more is at issue than just apprehension of facts.  M&K note this correlation:

. . college-educated Democrats are now more than twice as likely as college-educated Republicans to believer that global warming is real and is caused by human activities.

If science illiteracy is due to this Cool Hand Luke (CHL) Effect—the failure to communicate—have the facts about climate change been communicated more effectively to Democrats than to Republicans?

It’s no surprise that religion, or political stance, makes people resistant to accepting facts. The most familiar example is the resistance of religious people to accepting the fact of evolution. For many of the faithful, this does not reflect lack of knowledge. Rather, they are resistant to accepting the facts, and it is not because of a lack of science communication, because many creationists have been given the evidence for evolution, and not just by atheists, either!

Before we can claim that any public refusal to accept science reflects the CHL effect, then, we need data. Over at her website, Christina Pikas adduces some data showing the opposite, that it is not the lack of scientific knowledge that explains  “why the public doesn’t support some scientific endeavors” like genetic engineering or stem-cell research. Clearly, before we can fix the problem, we have to properly diagnose the problem.

M&K claim repeatedly that the problem of scientific illiteracy is getting worse, e.g.:

For all these reasons the rift between science and mainstream American culture is growing ever wider.

But is it?  The authors give no evidence beyond a decline in the number of science columns and supplements in American newspapers. That, however, does not necessarily mean that the public has grown more science illiterate, and anyway this likely reflects economic strictures rather than a change in the appetite of the public for science or in the willingness of the media and scientists to feed it. In fact, the one statistic that M&K do adduce about temporal trends in science literary shows that it hasn’t changed over time (this comes from a 2008 survey conducted by the National Science Foundation):

Roughly 46 percent of the public holds this anti-evolutionist, young-Earth-creationist, and scientifically illiterate view [the view that God created humans within the last 10.000 years]. That number has held constant since 1982, the first year in which the question was asked, apparently untouched by the waxing and waning of popular-science efforts, whether through magazines or best-selling books.

I suspect that one would find similar results using other assays of science literacy, though I couldn’t find any data.  Surprisingly, though, the authors don’t seem to grasp the implication of this constancy for their theory.  Throughout the “golden decade of the 1990s,” which M&K see as a high spot of science communication (this is when Carl Sagan and Steve Gould held sway) up to now, when atheist-scientists are afoot, there has been no change. Where, pray tell, is the evidence showing that the science-public disconnect has increased?  It must have done so, of course, if the authors’ claim is true that the New Atheists (who began publishing around 2004) markedly increased  the disconnect.

Is the problem especially bad in the US? M&K are confusing on this issue.  In one place they say this about the gulf between scientists and the public:

This divide is especially pronounced in the United States, which is simultaneously the world’s scientific leader—at least for this moment–and home to an overarching culture that often barely seems to know or care.

But then they say this as well:

To begin with, citizens of other nations don’t fare much better on scientific literacy surveys, and in many cases fare worse. Residents of the European Union, for instance, are less scientifically literate overall than Americans, at least according to one metric for measuring “civic science literacy” across countries.

Well, which is it?  And is scientific literacy correlated with science acceptance among countries?  At least for evolution, it is not.  If the US is either on par with Europe, or slightly better, in scientific literacy, why do so many fewer Americans than Europeans accept evolution? (Hint: it may have something to do with religion.)

Finally, M&K make much about how America is slipping in the international race for science prestige, although they admit that we’re still #1:

The United States stands on the verge of falling behind other nations such as India and China in the race to lead the world in scientific endeavor in the twenty-first century.

The “evidence” they adduce consists of these two pieces of data:  China’s rate of increase in Ph.D. production is greater than that of the US, as is the proportion of Chinese bachelor’s degrees that are in science and engineering.  Well, that’s what one should expect when a rural country suddenly becomes urban and aspires to world-class technological sophistication.

But does this mean that we’re falling behind? Is the index of “being ahead” the proportion of total degrees in science, or the number of Ph.Ds minted? Is that highly correlated with the amount of scientific advance or innovation?  And even if we were slipping, why, exactly, should we care? M&K don’t answer these questions, perhaps assuming that it’s obvious.  But it’s not. Are we supposed to care that our country remains number one for symbolic reasons? Or does this purported “slippage” mean that our quality of life is endangered? (And if that’s the case, what is the evidence?) Science is an international community, and shouldn’t we applaud China’s getting up to speed, since international competition in science is, in the end, good for everyone?  Again, there are no answers here, just the repeated claim that this is something that’s really, really bad.

To be fair, I myself have raised the alarum about America falling behind.  Nevertheless, upon reflection I’m not so sure that this perceived slippage should cause us to get our knickers in a twist.  America remains a scientific Mecca, despite other countries catching up, and increasing numbers of foreigners come here for scientific training. In the end, I think that the spread of quality science throughout the world, which will inevitably bring other countries closer to us, can only be good for us all.

M&K have noticed what many have before: the American public is surprisingly ignorant of basic facts of science.  But what Unscientific America fails to prove is that this ignorance has had inimical effects on the public good, or on the advance of science in our country.  Moreover, their claims of a growing breach between scientists and society are backed by almost no data.  Finally, they do not make a convincing argument that our country is in imminent danger of losing its standing in international science, or that this would be a terrible thing if it happened.

These are the foundational claims of the book — the claims that give rise to M&K’s assertions about what caused this illiteracy, and to their prescriptions for fixing it.  In the next part we will see that this lack of evidential support also dogs their discussion about the major causes of scientific illiteracy.


  1. Posted July 14, 2009 at 7:03 am | Permalink

    A substantive and thoughtful review. I look forward to parts 2 and 3.

  2. Peter Beattie
    Posted July 14, 2009 at 7:13 am | Permalink

    As I say over at Mooneybaum’s place, I’m very curious to see whether Jerry’s review will receive the “rebuttal” or the “great posts by X” treatment, the latter of which M&K dispensed to Janet Stemwedel who made exactly the same point as Jerry.

  3. Xen
    Posted July 14, 2009 at 7:43 am | Permalink

    “It is a blog post blown up to book length.”

    I haven’t read the book, but from the reviews, both negative and positive it does seem to be exactly that. I had been quite to curious to read it, but not so happy at the prospect of paying for it, specially because I’m not even american, *shrug*.

    What strikes me as odd is for a book called “Unscientific America” to mention science blogs and identify an event like “crackergate” as things of relevance to the scientific literacy of millions of people.

    It seems to me to be a pure product of vanity from the authors.

    They want to believe their blog matters, so if their blog matters, PZ’s must matter an order of magnitude more, and thus when he commits ‘framing heresy’, such crimes must be condemned, no?

  4. Posted July 14, 2009 at 7:57 am | Permalink

    It sounds like the classic snake-oil pitch; make up a problem and then claim you are selling the cure.
    I liked the old moderate accomodationists like Gould and Sagan. It’s the militant ‘New Accomodationists’ with their aggressive fundamentalistic accomodationism that I can’t stand.

    • Yakaru
      Posted July 14, 2009 at 9:22 am | Permalink


    • newenglandbob
      Posted July 14, 2009 at 10:46 am | Permalink

      militant ‘New Accomodationists’ – That is brilliant, Sigmund.

    • Mariana
      Posted July 14, 2009 at 11:41 am | Permalink

      Hahaha! Win.

    • Posted July 14, 2009 at 11:52 am | Permalink

      I love it – I will be stealing the idea of Fundamentalist Accomodationism, and plagiarising it mercilessly 🙂

    • Wes
      Posted July 14, 2009 at 8:10 pm | Permalink

      The militant New Accomodationists are creating a rift in the science community by alienating atheist fence sitters who might otherwise support the idea of promoting science. Of course, it is the fault of the New Accomodationists that these atheists make decisions about science based on how polite a certain subset of scientists are, rather than on the merits of the claims.

  5. Posted July 14, 2009 at 8:00 am | Permalink

    Great review — I’m especially interested in how little scientific illiteracy has changed since the days of Gould and Sagan. This just shows that the evaluation is extremely subjective, as is the related “Dawkins is no Sagan” bit. He is no Sagan but I wouldn’t say he’s worse — there’s certainly no objective data to support this. Both Sagan and Dawkins are associated with mass support. The only potential rebuttal left is that Dawkins is preaching to the converted but Sagan was reaching out to people — and they appear to have made this argument — once again with no reason to suggest why we should think this is the case.

    • Xen
      Posted July 14, 2009 at 8:06 am | Permalink

      “I’m especially interested in how little scientific illiteracy has changed since the days of Gould and Sagan.”

      And you know what strikes me about the american landscape that has changed since those days?
      The amount of people that identify themselves as atheist seems to have doubled I believe.

    • astrounit
      Posted July 14, 2009 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

      Michael says, “…Dawkins is preaching to the converted but Sagan was reaching out to people…”

      I think it’s dead wrong to suggest Dawkins should be confined exclusively to that “preaching to the converted” bin just to provide some strangely insistent dichotomous or comparitive contrast to Sagan’s own populist efforts. I knew Carl, and he was energetically enthusiastic about Dawkins’ “The Selfish Gene” and “The Blind Watchmaker”, books that posed no overt relation to Dawkins’ status as an atheist.

      Sagan too was an atheist, and likewise wrote many exceptional books on scientific topics for public consumption, just as Dawkins has.

      Sagan might well too be considered on many an occasion to have preached to the converted.

      So what? That’s not what either of these two gentlemen were ever about. They were/are about trying to open the minds of people who have their minds shut tight by the instruments of religious tradition.

      While we may most acutely recall Sagan’s last big tome (co-authored by his wife Ann Druyan) as the marvelously blistering debunking effort that it was, we might also recall Sagan’s first popular and best-selling book, “Cosmic Connection: An Extraterrestrial Perspective”.

      He knew what was missing from the very first. He yearned to show people that we were IN FACT intimately related – not just to each other, but directly to a whole universe of nature full of processes that have been transpiring over billions of years: “We ARE star-stuff”.

      (That’s SAGAN’S phrase).

      That is a mighty powerful message science HAD in fact delivered. He not only recognized it (as many other scientists obviously had in his time) he had the fortitude, self-confidence and gift of writing to relay that message to the public in a way that was digestible to them.

      Nobody else in the scientific community – most all of them knowing what he knew about the science AND how important it was – ever bothered to synthesize this information into a form that the public could share. Yet Sagan was RIDICULED by a substantial number of his scientific colleagues for some “unscientific” behavior or becoming a “showman”. I know, because I saw it.

      He knew from the first that people who’ve attached themselves to traditional or religious myths needed something to “believe in”, that they required something to “fill the vacuum” if anyone had the audacity (as both Sagan and Dawkins have) to

      The “distinction” between Dawkins and Sagan you are stretching for, and miss by a wide margin, is that Sagan presented himself as a scientist who espoused atheist views (“The Demon-Haunted World”), while Dawkins presented himself as a scientist who espoused atheist views (“The God Delusion”).

      Where is it? Where’s the distinction? They wrote different books? Ayup. No kidding. Or maybe your trite (but tidy!) interpretation inordinately focuses on some nebulous distinction extracted from how these men are regarded by the yap of historical posterity?

      The essential difference that tumbles out is that Dawkins is a British scientist who brilliantly (and courageously) stepped up the tradition emplaced by the earlier American scientist Sagan’s debunking book, by emphasizing religion has the focus of the debunkery.

      Dawkins writes a book that directs its attention to the next step, that of the problem of religious thinking, and suddenly we have this weird distinction which artificially separates Dawkins and Sagan? A distinction described as, “…Dawkins is preaching to the converted but Sagan was reaching out to people…”

      Are you kidding?

      That is an enormously wrong-headed view. Those men are/were indubitably on PRECISELY the same side. They both understand/understood that the ubiquity of religious devotion is by far the hardest nut to crack. Somebody had to grab up the baton Sagan held so high before passing. Dawkins did so, and has performed exceptionally well. And if Sagan were alive today, he’d correct you along these very lines in a heartbeat.

      • astrounit
        Posted July 14, 2009 at 12:46 pm | Permalink

        Pardon: The lopped-off sentence should continue thusly:

        “He knew from the first that people who’ve attached themselves to traditional or religious myths needed something to “believe in”, that they required something to “fill the vacuum” if anyone had the audacity (as both Sagan and Dawkins have) to refute their long and preciously held beliefs.”

        Many pardons.

      • Saul Wences
        Posted July 14, 2009 at 1:03 pm | Permalink

        …Which reminds me of a rather smart math friend who said that Sagan was an “astronomy genuis and a great man” while Dakwins is a “despicable human being, who has done nothing but latch onto the writings and works of great scientists”. And later he said I was a narrow-minded athiest. I was dumbfounded. To me, they both had the same message, though Sagan seems to have criticized religion (and all other superstitious behavior) in a more subtle way, almost inviting you to have a close and harsh look in the mirror, whereas Dawkins just flat out points it out. Both are good approaches, and I can see how some people might prefer one over the other, but to use that as your reason to call one great and the other despicable, I just cannot understand.

      • Posted July 14, 2009 at 4:09 pm | Permalink

        Sorry, were you saying mine was the wrong-headed view or the view from Unscientific America as reported by Jerry Coyne in this post?

        Because I completely agree with you — my comment said there is no evidence for any distinction between Dawkins and Sagan.

        But thanks for spelling it out in more detail — will be useful as a more direct rebuttal of those who do make the distinction!

  6. JScarry
    Posted July 14, 2009 at 8:22 am | Permalink

    M&K are quick to blame PZ and Dawkins for science illiteracy but the majority of Americans have never heard of PZ and only vaguely know who Dawkins is. Dawkins and the other “New Atheists” are frequently vilified about silly things like the war on Christmas or the White House Easter egg hunt at places like Fox News and NewsMax, etc. They are a convenient scapegoat for the daily hate, but I doubt if the listeners/readers have ever read their books or watched their presentations. If they did, they’d certainly know more about science—even if their religious/political views caused them to reject the conclusions.

    • astrounit
      Posted July 14, 2009 at 2:45 pm | Permalink

      That is an excellent point! By far, most of the battle remains within the precincts of what might be called the “scientific community”. The issue that rears its ugly head is “propriety” or “policy” and that sort of thing related to cultural affairs. Never mind that these concerns have nothing whatsoever to do with the science at issue.

      It all boils down to this: Does science have any public say at all as to whether religious beliefs on ANY aspect of human experience are viable or not?

      Absolutely it does.

      Not only does science come equipped with the evidence and data that can lend support to any conclusion one might infer (not to mention energizing a very conservative tradition that comprises scientific consensus), it positively represents a source of provisional knowledge directly from nature that ought to enjoy AT LEAST the same power to educate and influence the public as religion does. (BTW: that “provisional” status of knowledge is an extraordinarily important bit of knowledge in itself, which the certainty of religious thinking can never accomodate, or it would immediately fall apart into a smoldering ash heap).

      The accomodationist element amongst scientists makes me sick. THEY are the ones who now place the barrier. THEY’RE the ones who think it polite to keep the patient in the dark with respect to her condition. THEY’RE the ones who are now hoisting the absurd flag that reads, “Science and Religion are Compatible”.


      Why are they doing this? WHY? Well, a little bit of looking at the cultural forces involved will easily provide a clue. After all, scientists are imbedded in the culture as thoroughly as anybody else is, and that culture is strongly channeled by family and peer ties. On the larger national scale, nobody can possibly deny that religion or what I call “religious thinking” strongly influences these closely-knit familial and peer connections. The accomodationists DO have a “reason” to resist what they perceive to be an unnecessary rocking of the boat. They don’t want to see their carefully-cultivated family garden trampled.

      But it’s got to start somewhere. The accomodationists simply do not realize they’ve been spending their precious energy and time cultivating weeds that threatens the rest of their hopeful garden. They think it impolite to establish a garden which does not treat weeds fairly, so they hopefully plead. But primarily, even if they privately concede the situation is as I’ve outlined, they still don’t want the boat overturned. They think immersion into the water is a potential catastrophe to be avoided. They think it is risky, that families would be disrupted by the overturn and that loved ones may drown. They think it impossible that everyone can learn to float and swim.

      They’re reluctant to teach their families and friends another way of looking at the world. It’s none of their business to share with people, to teach or inform people, to “convert” people. That’s not their job, and they hide behind that “ethical stance” as if it was a virtue.

      Meanwhile, religious interests everywhere run amok eagerly attempting to convert EVERYBODY.

      There is NOTHING WHATSOEVER that indicates that there is any compatibility between science and religion. The assertion that a compatibility exists is as absurd as to expect that one day the lion will lie down with the lamb. It’s preposterous from first principles, and most people on either side very well know it. That leaves the accomodationist equivocators attempting to walk barefoot on a razorblade fence: which easily makes them the dumbest of the parties involved.

      You are 100% correct: “If they [read Richard Dawkins and PZ Myers] they’d certainly know more about science—even if their religious/political views caused them to reject the conclusions.”

      I guess it’s just too bad that scientists like Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum weigh in with a smoke bomb rather than a decent flame of light. The acrid black smoke they exude is nothing but a distractive element in their demand of fairness towards completely unsubstantiated claims as legitimate matter for belief. That soot from it blackens the sight of people who have the responsibilities ranging from the raising of children to the kind of reasoning ability required for the health and welfare of a democracy. Religion provides NOTHING of the relevant skills; science – as a messenger from the horse’s mouth of nature herself (putatively “God’s Creation, yes???) – potentially provides EVERYTHING. Yet the vast majority of religious people aren’t interested in that particular “gospel”, are they? Not any more than they are willing to, say, in the identification of “God’s Rays” when referring to crepuscular rays.

      Mooney and Kirshenbaum had a golden opportunity to write a good book about why the country and the world is in fact so messed up and scientifically illiterate as it is…and they blew it.

  7. Posted July 14, 2009 at 8:28 am | Permalink

    I would prefer that the people behind Templeton and Pew create meaningful studies to show where the public place their priorities, and include a “better understanding of science” on the scale. I think that people are more interested in other issues than science, that society provides far too many distractions. This is something than Janet Stemwedel touches on, too, and something that I was trying to tell Chris Mooney over a year and a half ago.

    Of course, at the time, I didn’t have any studies to back up my position and I think that a scale of interest would be very helpful before trying to figure out how to improve science literacy.

    Robert Bate, a freelance science “modifier,” feeds denialists with confusing information about the science behind AGW, DDT/Malaria and generic drugs. He’s more of an enemy to scientific literacy than you, PZ, Richard Dawkins, et al. It’s this whole lie of “The Sound Science” that conservative think tanks use to confuse people as to the value of science; and the churches don’t help by devaluing science, either.

    I treat the issue at Quiche Moraine.

  8. Posted July 14, 2009 at 8:45 am | Permalink

    I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: If you are interested in the topic of scientific illiteracy in the U.S. you would do much better to read Hofstader’s 1963 book Anti Intellectualism in the United States than to read Mooney/Kirshbaum’s book. It is, from what I gather from the reviews, better researched and written but more importantly places scientific illiteracy within the overall cultural context of general anti-intellectualism.

    • newenglandbob
      Posted July 14, 2009 at 2:09 pm | Permalink

      Rev Matt – another good book which was inspired by Hofstader’s book is:

      “The Age of American Unreason”
      By Susan Jacoby

      Amazon.com link

      My review: Thought provoking. Well researched. Dumbing down of US. I don’t agree 100% with conclusions.

  9. Posted July 14, 2009 at 8:48 am | Permalink

    Yeah, good review. It really got me thinking. I think the question of how best to prevent people from adopting obstinate anti-science beliefs is still wide open. The obvious rebuttal to M&K’s argument that the New Atheists are destructive (that nothing has changed) has a flip-side: It also suggests that New Atheism is not doing any better in this front. (Although I recognize that’s not really the point of “New Atheism”, so this is not really a critique… just an observation that it indeed does not fit that role)

    In my experience with anti-vaxers, it seems there is a window when someone is just starting to become interested in an anti-scientific belief, when a thorough dismantling of the belief can be effective. Shortly after that is a point of no return, or at least almost no return.

    The problem with religion-based delusions is that usually children brought up in a religion are past the point of almost-no-return before they are even capable of comprehending a full rebuttal of their anti-scientific beliefs. I have no idea what to do about that…

    • Paul
      Posted July 14, 2009 at 9:35 am | Permalink

      “The obvious rebuttal to M&K’s argument that the New Atheists are destructive (that nothing has changed) has a flip-side: It also suggests that New Atheism is not doing any better in this front. (Although I recognize that’s not really the point of “New Atheism”, so this is not really a critique… just an observation that it indeed does not fit that role)”

      Politely disagree. While nothing has changed regarding the percentage of people who accept evolution, you know what has changed? The number of people that identify as atheist.

      • Posted July 14, 2009 at 9:45 am | Permalink

        Oops, I replied at bottom instead of in the thread. See my reply below. In a nutshell, I totally agree with you, and just phrased it poorly before. 🙂

  10. Posted July 14, 2009 at 8:59 am | Permalink

    Given the lack of supporting data for arguments, it sounds like Unscientific America is itself a symptom of unscientific America.

  11. Tulse
    Posted July 14, 2009 at 9:01 am | Permalink

    Fabulous review, Jerry — it has far more substance in terms of argument and data that M&K have ever offered.

    Frankly, that’s the part that pisses me off most about them, that they make pronouncements without any real evidence or analysis to back them up. It might very well be that Dawkins and PZ are responsible for setting back science literacy in the US in the past five years, but if that’s the claim, dammit let’s see some evidence, or at least an argument beyond “People don’t like it when you meanly challenge their religious beliefs”.

    • newenglandbob
      Posted July 14, 2009 at 10:50 am | Permalink

      I’m in complete agreement with you, Tulse.

  12. Eric
    Posted July 14, 2009 at 9:06 am | Permalink

    Excellent points. M&K clearly are clueless by not putting the blame where it properly lies– the inability of most people to embrace science because of childhood indoctrination by ignorant and mostly religious parents. Perhaps this book is not worthy of any other comments or additional reviews as its uselessness is profound.

  13. Posted July 14, 2009 at 9:13 am | Permalink

    There appears to be some basic empiricism illiteracy in the book, in that they appear not to understand what proper justification of their claims would be.

    Or worse, it looks too much like what the IDiots do, come up with their conclusion, and try to fit the “facts” to fit that conclusion. Chris has a chip on his shoulder over “civility,” and therefore seems determined to blame “incivility” for long-standing problems of scientific ignorance in this country.

    Unfortunately for them, it is just this kind of bad thinking that we oppose.

    Glen Davidson

  14. Posted July 14, 2009 at 9:23 am | Permalink

    Basically, they appear to blame the public themselves, when they claim that “scientific illiteracy” is to blame for nothing being done about global warming.

    Opposition to effectively addressing global warming has almost nothing, however, to do with people not understanding water vapor’s enhancement of CO2’s warming and aerosol effects in the atmosphere, and everything to do with ineffective political leadership (Dem and Rep) in this area, as well as a good deal of obfuscatory rhetoric from parties interested in thwarting anti-AGW measures.

    Blame the public, but then blame the scientists for the public’s illiteracy. You remember how it goes, the nerds prevented the jocks from learning science in school, so the nerds became the scientists. It’s always that way.

    Glen Davidson

    • Jackybird
      Posted July 14, 2009 at 10:59 am | Permalink

      When I read your comment, it occurred to me that people who support addressing global warming don’t understand the science behind it either.

      At least among people I know, support or opposition has more to do with emotional reactions to capitalism, industrialization, modernity, etc.

      • jfatz
        Posted July 14, 2009 at 6:11 pm | Permalink

        While supporters frequently don’t understand the science behind it either, they place “deferred trust” in oh… say… the consensus opinion of those people who actually STUDY the matter and DO understand the science.

        It’s not so much that their emotional reactions to capitalism, industrialization, modernity, etc. drives them to support it, but rather that they LACK a political opinion (generally it’s political) that prompts them to OPPOSE those who DO understand the science.

  15. John D
    Posted July 14, 2009 at 9:25 am | Permalink

    I wonder why Mooney and Kirshenbaum don’t single out the media for providing fuel for scientific illiteracy (I’m assuming they don’t since it hasn’t been mentioned in any of the review). It strikes me that sensationalistic media representations of science are a major cause of the problem. This is something which Ben Goldacre over at badscience.net has been particular good at pointing out. Indeed, the link between media sensationalisation/misrepresentation should be capable of being proved. Take, for example, the whole vaccines-autism debacle. I reckon one could easily trace the increasing decline in vaccination to the media reports of (in England at any rate) Andrew Wakefield’s infamous study. Just a thought

    • Matt Penfold
      Posted July 14, 2009 at 9:41 am | Permalink

      I think they are heeding the adage you should not bite the hand that feeds you.

      Mooney is a journalist, and Kirshenbaum spends much of her time these doing journalism rather anything sciency, so I guess they do not want to criticise the people who pay them.

  16. Sili
    Posted July 14, 2009 at 9:35 am | Permalink

    Amusing. If Americans are more scientifically literate than Europeans, while the US rejects evolution and Eu accepts it, doesn’t that imply that evolution is not in fact supported by science?

    At least in the court of public opinion which seems to be the only arbiter Mooneybaum cares for.

    • Anonym
      Posted July 14, 2009 at 10:59 am | Permalink

      Might “Mooneybaum” aspire to ‘Mooneybalm’ : the longed-for panacea for all forms of social disconnect?

  17. Posted July 14, 2009 at 9:43 am | Permalink

    Politely disagree. While nothing has changed regarding the percentage of people who accept evolution, you know what has changed? The number of people that identify as atheist

    Absolutely, 100% agree. My previous parenthetical remark was getting a little out of hand, so I didn’t bother to clarify in depth, but yes that is what I meant.

    To expand: The point of “New Atheism” is NOT to improve scientific literacy among the public, so no surprise that it has had no effect in that arena. So-called “new atheism” is about helping atheists come out of the closet (like me), and helping people who basically are already atheists and didn’t know it yet to clarify their beliefs (like a couple of people I know). At this, I think it has been VERY effective, and I am so grateful for this movement.

    I was just saying, if Mooney had made the more guarded assertion that “New Atheism” is going to do little or nothing to improve science education, at least in the short term, then I wouldn’t dispute it (though I would ask him who he thought was asserting that in the first place…)

  18. Jason
    Posted July 14, 2009 at 9:52 am | Permalink

    I run in evangelical circles. Evangelicals are entirely uneducated in evolution. But little would change if their education was better, their opposition is religious. Even if they stumble upon a source that adequately explains evolution, Answer in Genesis is just a few clicks away to totally obscuficate anything they might have otherwise learned. And they don’t WANT to know, they want to believe their religion.

    On the flip side, if you wanted them to learn it, you must first convince them they could still believe their religion. Because they won’t give up their religion. Dawkins was one of the first authors to truly elaborate on the wonder and excitement of evolution; I love his books. But I must admit in my early days I always wished he would tone down his anti-religious stance because all of Christian circles would never give evolution a fair hearing if they were likewise being told its truth also falsifies their religion in its entirety.

    Of course, at that time I also was a believer. I believed in and trusted Jesus to forgive me for my sins. I spent a great deal of time trying to put the two worlds together, both for myself and for the ultimate confrontation when my christian family and friends became aware. My accomadationist position was not just for education but for my own mental stability.

    And then things changed. I don’t really believe anymore, I have reached the point of at least deism. It wasn’t so much that evolution pushed me over the edge, that goes more for comparative literature studies, comparative religion, critical thinking, and frankly a touch of common sense to undue an entire lifetime of a certain teaching and belief. So now I think Dawkins was right all along, about everything. But now I have even more mixed feelings about evolution, because now I agree with AiG, it does lead to loss of faith. Now I think Christians should be threatened, because now they have me as an example of accepting the world’s wisdom (which I otherwise called being educated:).

    So I don’t know. I am not like Dawkins that think that we would necessarily be better without religion. So I don’t necessarily want my church to disband overnight. The sense of purpose, assurance of an afterlife, and sense of community might be very healthy for the psychology of the participants. On the other hand denying something as well supported as evolution is surely bad for the future of our community. Soooo, I am not sure what is better, to side with Coyne/Dawkins/Myers or to side Scott/Gould/Mooney.

    • articulett
      Posted July 14, 2009 at 10:54 am | Permalink

      Maybe there are a range of ways to fight for scientific literacy.

      I doubt Mooney’s way is more productive than those he criticizes.

      Comparing the scientific literacy of the “new atheists” with the accommodationists and the supporters of their blogs, I think the “new atheists” win hands down. Their science is not diluted with the need to believe in a certain unbelievable tale that they imagine to be essential to their salvation. They don’t need to make excuses for god or pretend that “faith” is a way of knowing something real or useful or true.

      Dawkins doesn’t want to disband religion. The accommodationists seem to hear the “new atheists” hearing things they aren’t saying to keep themselves from understanding that the “new atheist” feels the same way towards the believers’ beliefs that the believer feels towards all the beliefs and superstitions he doesn’t indulge.

    • sinned34
      Posted July 14, 2009 at 1:50 pm | Permalink

      In the early to mid 1990’s, I was an Evangelical Christian. I remember Gould and Sagan receiving pretty much the same derision from creationists that Myers and Dawkins now receive.

      As mentioned many times above, the biggest problem is that a good portion of the American population follow a religion that makes them suspicious and sometimes downright fearful of science. This isn’t much of a surprise, because their religious leaders tell them that scientists are trying to destroy their faith.

    • origin
      Posted July 14, 2009 at 3:45 pm | Permalink

      “So I don’t know. I am not like Dawkins that think that we would necessarily be better without religion. So I don’t necessarily want my church to disband overnight.”

      I do not think Dawkins (or the “new atheist” movement in general wants religion) to disappear(I know Dennett has at least stressed this point in his work).
      It is more a matter of wanting the dogamtism and supernaturalism to stop. Meeting up with your neighbors to discuss community, family, subjective experience or whatever is perfectly alright. Enjoying your local religion’s tradition, songs, texts, art, architecture — all that is grand stuff. Pretending to know things no one could ever possibly know is the problem. Having a weekly meeting and shared culture certainly is not.

  19. terry
    Posted July 14, 2009 at 9:52 am | Permalink

    The postwar years (1950-1980) were a unique (and probably never to be repeated) time for U.S. science. Europe was destroyed. The U.S. was in a science/arms/technology race with the USSR where our gov’t poured amazing amounts of money into research. Universities grew exponentially. The religious were more afraid of communism than science, and so mostly stayed out of the way.

    The last few decades just represent a return to more normal conditions where good research is spread more uniformly around the world. I think that’s a good thing.

  20. Damian
    Posted July 14, 2009 at 10:36 am | Permalink

    One thing that I have noticed, as a non-American, is that in the United States there appears to be a large number of think-tanks, as well as other similar organizations, which are almost entirely dedicated to spreading misinformation about a range of issues.

    An example of what I mean is highlighted in this lecture: “The American Denial of Global Warming”, by Naomi Oreskes (I have linked to the exact place that this point is highlighted).

    Oreskes highlights the curious case (or perhaps not so) of the George C. Marshall Institute, which has been engaged in attempts to spread misinformation about Global Warming for a number of years.

    So, Oreskes asks the question, “How did scientific uncertainty become a political tactic?” She then goes on to explain how the Marshall Institute was initially set up in 1984 (coincidence?) to, “defend Ronald Regan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) from attacks by physicists”. Unsurprisingly, Oreskes also discovered that the Marshall Institute and its associates had been involved in several campaigns of a similar nature over the last 20 years, or so, all of which were clearly attempts to defend their own narrow ideological viewpoint, as opposed to the more noble pursuit, in my opinion, of attempting to get to the truth.

    I know of few other countries that has so many competing forces that are all hellbent on contesting matters of fact, for all sorts of reasons, ranging from religious hegemony, to political expediency, to market fundamentalism.

    The reason that it is so pervasive in the United States, I think, is that much effort is put in to maintaining a clear dividing line between political parties and political ideologies — the consequence of which is the highly polarized society that we see today (I’m simplifying, obviously). Another consequence of such polarization is that there now exists loyal audiences for these misinformation campaigns, more often than not based entirely on political or religious affiliation.

    In Britain, for example, this would be very difficult to achieve. Left and right wing are not really labels that define people, at all. Indeed, the vast majority of people don’t even identify with a political party, let alone belong to one, and they are willing to vote for whichever party appears to be best equipped to run the country at the time of each general election (or which one hasn’t been ruining it for the last decade, or so).

  21. articulett
    Posted July 14, 2009 at 10:48 am | Permalink

    As a former believer in assorted “woo”, I think this inane notion that there are “other ways of knowing” is more responsible for obfuscating scientific understanding in favor of what makes people feel good. All promoters of “woo” who wish to pass off belief or opinion as fact have a vested interest in maligning people who speak the truth that negates their view.

    K&M want to see themselves as facilitators of scientific understanding, but the evidence does not support this view they have of themselves. Instead the malign those who negate their view and avoid the pointed questions that would reveal their biases.

    They perceive a problem and inject themselves as a solution by making others into “extremists” who hurt “the cause”. In this way, they are as dishonest as the religions they cover for. They have blinded themselves to the way their catering to “faith” has directly contributed to the problem they claim to be so upset about.

    If only K&M would model scientific literacy by showing evidence for their claims that the “new atheists” contribute to scientific illiteracy while coddling faith (as they do) does not. In my own experience, the opposite is true.

    I think in order to help people become more scientifically literate, we need to show them why faith is not a means of finding out anything true or useful. It is, rather, a way of manipulating people into feeling like they “know” something when, in fact, they don’t know anything verifiable at all. Just as M&K feel “right” without demonstrating that they are “right” they are enabling religionists to do the same.

    I choose my own role models, and I am seldom drawn to those writing books that suggest others should be more like them. In this case, I find the “new atheists” much more honest, eloquent, and enlightening then their critics. I am middle aged and I’ve been an atheist for more than half my life, but if I wear the “new atheist” badge proudly.

  22. Siamang
    Posted July 14, 2009 at 10:52 am | Permalink

    Jason wrote:

    “Dawkins was one of the first authors to truly elaborate on the wonder and excitement of evolution; I love his books. But I must admit in my early days I always wished he would tone down his anti-religious stance….”

    So, why, I wonder, did you read Dawkins and not Ken Miller or Francis Collins?

    Those voices exist, too. But somehow they weren’t enough to reconcile faith with science for you.

    Which is interesting for me, noting that if science is to be reconciled with faith for the benefit of the faithful, books by scientists of faith aren’t enough. In order for evolution to be “safe” for Christians, opposing voices must not exist.

    If Christianity of the sort you held, Jason, had to be kept only in a world where dissenting voices did not exist, then it was a hothouse flower indeed, ready to wither at the first ray of the unfiltered light of the outside world.

    My thoughts aren’t meant to diagnose your situation, Jason. They are merely my ideas upon reading your post. Feel free to correct me or clarify your thoughts. What do you think about that?

    Or was it something on the order of Dawkins just being a better popular writer about science than Miller and Collins? For I will freely admit that Dawkins writes so well about science that it is a bit seductive.

  23. Posted July 14, 2009 at 11:25 am | Permalink

    hi, I’m from Vietnam. Nice to visit your blog

  24. Jeremy
    Posted July 14, 2009 at 11:25 am | Permalink

    I fine – and devastating – review, Jerry. Well done.

    • Jeremy
      Posted July 14, 2009 at 12:47 pm | Permalink

      (sigh) “A”, not “I”

  25. articulett
    Posted July 14, 2009 at 11:32 am | Permalink

    Religion seems far more to blame for scientific illiteracy because it’s an institution which has made itself off limits for scrutiny. In claims to have “higher truths” and tells trusting people that they have eternal souls that can live happily ever after if they BELIEVE the right thing (and suffer forever if they don’t). It is the main institution that elevates faith over truth and it does so by indoctrinating trusting children with this manipulative notion.

    New Age thought claims that you create your own reality by what you believe.

    Why would any honest person accommodate these delusional ways of thinking? Why are they more worthy of accommodation or deference than belief in rain dances, virgin sacrifices, voo-doo, or demon possession? How are they more scientifically valid than such claims?

    Science is about the truth that is the same for everyone no matter what they believe. It is the only method of knowledge that takes into account peoples’ propensity to fool themselves. People will always malign scientists and claim they are saying things other than they are saying in order to hear facts that threaten what they feel “enlightened” or “saved” for “believing in”.

    M&K engage in the same tactics as religion… “Believe in us or bad things will happen” (make nice with religion or people will reject science)… but it’s the belief, itself, that is the “bad thing”.

    M&K presume their conclusion just as surely as religion does.

  26. Posted July 14, 2009 at 11:33 am | Permalink

    Killer line –

    “For a book advocating science literacy, it offers surprisingly little evidence to support its claims.”

    • Paul
      Posted July 14, 2009 at 11:42 am | Permalink

      Especially killer in that reviews considered “good” by the authors include the same critique. But they attack PZ for saying the same thing. I think they will mostly ignore or brush off Coyne’s review, as they’ve already been spending a lot of time trying to counter PZ’s. Unless maybe they think refuting Coyne is likely to get them more exposure outside the blogosphere.

  27. Peter Beattie
    Posted July 14, 2009 at 11:43 am | Permalink

    And their comments on PZ’s review are even worse than unsupported. They are idiotic.

  28. giotto
    Posted July 14, 2009 at 12:11 pm | Permalink

    Nice review so far. It is clear that M&K are in way over their heads on this. It isn’t just that they lack the evidence to support their assertions; they lack the philosophical, historical, and sociological chops needed to properly define the problem they think they are addressing. Add that to Mooney’s “science wars” version of High Broderism, and it all very quickly becomes a waste of time.

  29. Neil Schipper
    Posted July 14, 2009 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

    Public intellectuals talking past each other… that’s novel. It’s also surely entertaining for Behe and Ham.

    It seems clear (from reading a few snippets and these reviews) that MK wrote an easily digestible book for a specific audience — mainstreamers who are on the front lines in these early days of the Obama admininstration, people who sit in face to face meetings with paymasters, policy types, science advisors, lobbyists, people in higher levels of academic admin — it’s a very political world. The book looks to have short-term gains in mind — to equip its audience with breezy cheerful “can-do” platitudes, a shot of adrenalin if you will, that might help them push the pro-science agenda (climate, biotech, evolution education) in a world where power is highly sensitive to not just religious, but also consumerist and greatest-nation sensibilities.

    Don’t look at the book as a source of anything deep or novel about the human condition, or even for depth about decades-scale aspirations in the American culture wars. If that’s what you’re after, better find some history or neuroscience.

    I’m not saying ‘hush’. By all means, point out the weaknesses and express disappointment. But the urge to rein down, in hyper-defensive tones, mountains of fire on their heads makes atheists look weak.

  30. Posted July 14, 2009 at 12:41 pm | Permalink

    The “Pluto Affair” actually works against M&K’s argument. When this first hit the news, the story unleashed a firestorm of debate especially among young people who traditionally have had a love affair with astronomy. Regardless of the pros and cons of the issue, their enthusiasm showed just how engaged young people are with science. On the point about the decline in science related articles in newspaper; what do we expect from a media that is rapidly becoming extinct? A better measure would be the number of popular science dedicated magazines, TV shows, Blogs, and other web sites. This would give us a much more complete picture of how attentive the public is to science.

    • foolfodder
      Posted July 14, 2009 at 12:53 pm | Permalink

      ‘The “Pluto Affair” actually works against M&K’s argument.’

      I think you could be right here.

      ‘On the point about the decline in science related articles in newspaper; what do we expect from a media that is rapidly becoming extinct?’

      I think you could be right here.

      ‘A better measure would be the number of popular science dedicated magazines, TV shows, Blogs, and other web sites. This would give us a much more complete picture of how attentive the public is to science.’

      I think you could be wrongish* here, in that all of those types of media have to be sought out by people who are already interested in science, whereas a newspaper with professional science journalists can, in theory, put together an accurate science story and get it in front of a much wider audience.

      * – possibly not wrong at all, I might just be making a different, kind-of-related point.

  31. Peter Beattie
    Posted July 14, 2009 at 12:48 pm | Permalink

    Oh, fun: Chad Orzel accuses me of quote-mining.

  32. Posted July 14, 2009 at 1:32 pm | Permalink

    Although scientific literacy in the public may have been constant since 1982, I have a subjective impression that scientific illiteracy and/or scientific non-acceptance among political elites has gone from being an occasionally expressed form of anti-intellectualism, to a seemingly bedrock principle of the Republican Party. This, I think, is a new development, dating to about the time of Reagan’s ascendancy. In the 70s, neither party was anti-science, and on environmental issues (which are often science-related), Republicans (at least in New York), were often more concerned and active than the Democrats. My subjective impression is, of course, the main thesis of Mooney’s first book (which I recently got a copy of, but have only glanced at).

  33. Peter Beattie
    Posted July 14, 2009 at 1:34 pm | Permalink

    Hard to believe though it is, M&K have published an article in Newsweek that is even more stubbornly idiotic than their previous fluff.

    • Paul
      Posted July 14, 2009 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

      In light of that book advertisement, I think it just got more likely that Coyne’s review will be attacked publicly. I think that would give them more of a platform to take “teaching the controversy” outside of the blogosphere and onto different media.

      Incidentally, Kirshenbaum has come out as an agnostic Jew according to that article. Not that it’s all that important, but I have seen people wonder what her particular religious stance is. Contrasting Mooney’s “atheist” label to her “agnostic”, apparently he has no doubt that there is no god. That’s taking an even stronger anti-god position than Mooney castigates Dawkins for taking in TGD.

    • Mariana
      Posted July 14, 2009 at 2:14 pm | Permalink

      From the M&K Newsweek article:

      “The New Atheist science blogger PZ Myers, for instance, has publicly desecrated a consecrated communion wafer, presumably taken from a Catholic mass, and put a picture of it, pierced by a rusty nail and thrown in the trash, on the Internet.”

      That’s it, no context at all, not even a vague reference to the incidents that motivated PZ’s actions.
      Frankly, after having gone over Mooney’s posts concerning the ‘Expelled’ fiasco, I shouldn’t be surprised by the sheer dishonesty, but I still find it rather shocking.

  34. John Huey
    Posted July 14, 2009 at 2:18 pm | Permalink

    Here is a scary thought: What if the level of scientific literacy that we have in the US is as good as it can possibly be? There has been a continuing effort, ever since Sputnik, by the different levels of the government (down to the school level), by the various media outlets (TV: Mr. Wizard, Cosmos, Nova; Magazines:Scientific American, Popular Science, Discover; and by individual scientists on the Internet.) If the level of scientific literacy is less than it can be it doesn’t seem to be from a lack of trying. If Western Europe has about the same level of scientific literacy as we do (ignoring the whole evolution dichotomy) maybe then this is as good as it gets.

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted July 14, 2009 at 2:28 pm | Permalink

      There might indeed be something to what you say. The public does not have an unlimited appetite for science: they like other stuff, too, and maybe they simply can’t respond in the way we’d like them to. Right now I’ve seen more outreach efforts by scientists than any time in my life, but not much has changed vis-a-vis science literacy.

    • Tyro
      Posted July 14, 2009 at 5:21 pm | Permalink

      I think there’s a danger in projecting out too far. We’ve seen some big social changes happen over the last 100 years but they happen slowly. It’s like the people that keep saying that religion will be here forever but looking to Europe we can see that while superstition may linger, religion can change so much as to be virtually unrecognizable.

      I wonder what we would find if instead of looking back 20 years we looked back 100. I’d expect that despite some basic errors, the average person today does know more than 100 years ago, notable as there is much more to know.

  35. Paul
    Posted July 14, 2009 at 2:32 pm | Permalink

    “If the level of scientific literacy is less than it can be it doesn’t seem to be from a lack of trying. If Western Europe has about the same level of scientific literacy as we do (ignoring the whole evolution dichotomy) maybe then this is as good as it gets.”

    Transparently false. I share the sense of unease, but the point stands that if the church stopped using its unquestionable position to poison people’s minds against science, there is no reason to believe it is not possible for things to get better. It is possible that there will still be people that just don’t care about science literacy. That’s unavoidable. But we’re a long way from having science rejected simply due to people that aren’t interested or lack the ability to marshal their thinking processes to learn science, we’re still dealing with people that reject science on an ideological basis based on lies from authority figures.

    • John Huey
      Posted July 14, 2009 at 2:57 pm | Permalink

      Well, given that I was posing a question, I have a hard time seeing how it could be transparently false. My guess, and it is only a guess, is that your are correct but I don’t think that we have any real data to support that conclusion. One of the most damming criticisms of the M&K piece is that they are making unfounded assertions and proposing solutions not based on evidence. We should not make the same mistake.

  36. Peter Beattie
    Posted July 14, 2009 at 3:39 pm | Permalink

    There’s more explicit stuff in the Shut Up department from Sheril Kirshenbaum: They tout their ridiculous Newsweek piece. My comment is still being held for moderation, so I’ll X-post it here:

    » Sheril Kirshenbaum:
    Science and religion are not mutually exclusive and must not continue to be portrayed as such.

    Wow, so it’s not just ‘Shut up!’ to PZ, RD, and Jerry, it’s actually ‘You shouldn’t be allowed to say what you’re saying’. Nice. You are unequivocally right without giving a single supporting argument or, in fact, even understanding the first thing about the issue (compatibility), and your opponents should be silent. Pardon my French, but that’s crazy-talk.

    Though some very vocal voices in the science community disagree, I assure you they are not representative of the whole. I continue to work day to day with scientists who hold a very broad array of beliefs … .

    Of course, why not cite your personal experience in support of a claim about representativeness. And you wrote a book about scientific illiteracy? What an incredible joke.

    The new atheist movement takes an adversarial approach, but only succeeds in alienating the majority of the planet away from science.

    At the rate that you’re making completely baseless, self-serving claims and touting your bigoted (yes, bigoted; look it up in a dictionary) interpretations, one shouldn’t wonder why you’re so eager to please the believers. You have obviously joined them.

    When it comes to enacting sound policies on what really matters, this will always be a losing strategy.

    So you do not only know the Truth about “what really matters”, you also have a crystal ball? But do go ahead, make a complete fool of yourself.

  37. DrYak
    Posted July 14, 2009 at 4:05 pm | Permalink

    Great review, I particularly liked the point about science in the rest of the world being important as well. The M&K book does seem to suffer from this very US-centric bias – which while highly appropriate in “The Republican War on Science”, is less so on this particular topic – particularly if they place such emphasis on Dawkins who is not American and is highly respected in the UK and other parts of the english-speaking world. I would also like to recommend the excellent book “Bad Science” by Ben Goldacre (a medical doctor). In it he not only decries the public’s (and especially media) science illiteracy, he actually goes about thrying to cure it by equiping the public with the tools to do the jobs for themselves.

  38. Tyro
    Posted July 14, 2009 at 5:24 pm | Permalink

    I wonder how much is due to the memorization-over-understanding approach of our schools. John Taylor Gatto has written a great deal about this, though he never covers science education specifically so it may have slipped under the radar of many people here.

  39. Greg. Tingey
    Posted July 14, 2009 at 5:29 pm | Permalink

    M&K are, effectively, saying: “Shut up you atheists (“new” or old) because we are SCARED of the power of religious bigotry, ignorance and superstition.”

    Well, they might be right to be scared, but that is not a reason to shut up …..

  40. Posted July 14, 2009 at 6:11 pm | Permalink

    I am very confused!!
    How does a person know who to believe when discussing global warming? Many scientists insist AGW is a fact. Almost as many scientists disagree. I am a 57 year old Canadian woman with only a highschool education. There doesn’t seem to be a way for me to verify the truth or the deception of AGW. It isn’t that I wouldn’t love to be able to independently verify the scientific data, but sadly I can’t.
    I don’t trust the IPCC, or Al Gore, or David Suzuki. I don’t think President Obama or Prime Minister Stephen Harper are qualified regarding this particuar subject. How is a person to know who is telling the truth?
    I spent over tens years becomming an atheist.
    Frankly; I don’t think I have as much time to find out whether or not AGW is true.

    • Blair T
      Posted July 14, 2009 at 8:48 pm | Permalink

      Hi Kath,

      The best summary of the global warming issue I have seen is on Youtube – posted by potholer54. He is a science journalist and does an excellent job of summarizing the state of knowledge. The link is to the 1st of 4 videos.


    • Brian English
      Posted July 14, 2009 at 9:39 pm | Permalink

      Why don’t you trust the IPCC? Do you think all the scientists who collaborate to produce the IPCC reports are liars or deceptive? I don’t get it.

    • Brian English
      Posted July 14, 2009 at 9:40 pm | Permalink

      Who can you trust if not the scientists? As you point out, they’re the ones with the where-with-all to understand the evidence and models and advise us who lack the requisites.

    • Posted July 15, 2009 at 11:31 am | Permalink

      Many of the scientists who reject AGW are not climate scientists. A physicist or a chemist or some other specialist may or may not be in any better position to evaluate climate studies than an educated layman.

      Scientists sometimes seem to forget, or their audience forgets, that they are also human beings with the same kinds of ideological blind spots as others.

  41. articulett
    Posted July 14, 2009 at 6:35 pm | Permalink

    There is evidence that within the U.S. strong disparities in religious belief versus acceptance of evolution are correlated with similarly varying rates of societal dysfunction, the strongly theistic, anti-evolution south and mid-west having markedly worse homicide, mortality, STD, youth pregnancy, marital and related problems than the northeast where societal conditions, secularization, and acceptance of evolution approach European norms


    This well respected study put out by the Journal of Religion and Society indicates that RELIGION is correlated with scientific ignorance (particularly regarding evolution)as well as other social ills.

    This study also supports the link between religiosity and scientific ignorance: http://moses.creighton.edu/JRS/2005/2005-11.html

    Note that it’s the more secular (atheistic) countries that score the best.

    M&K have some ‘splaining to do. They are covering for those who spread ignorance while vilifying those who speak the truth. Shame on them.

  42. Michael K Gray
    Posted July 14, 2009 at 8:40 pm | Permalink

    Attention J. Coyne:

    You may wish to edit the typo in your second paragraph:

    we see the pubic as dumb or intractable.

    (Change ‘pubic’ to ‘public’)

    • Jennifer B. Phillips
      Posted July 14, 2009 at 10:48 pm | Permalink

      Actually, that works for me as written 😉

  43. Härj
    Posted July 14, 2009 at 9:52 pm | Permalink

    The idea that scientists should reach out to Hollywood movie producers is a hoot and a half. For instance the mind-bogglingly unscientific movie The Core had science advisors on hand – they just choose to ignore everything the advisors said apparently. Hollywood will never let science stand in the way of a good scene

  44. Posted July 14, 2009 at 11:05 pm | Permalink

    “Except to a few extremist Plutophiles, this affair was little more than a joke, a bit of public fun. It hardly makes the case for a crippling science illiteracy.”

    This is simply not true. First of all, only four percent of the IAU approved this, and most are not planetary scientists. Their decision was immediately opposed by hundreds of professional astronomers in a formal petition led by Dr. Alan Stern, Principal Investigator of NASA’s New Horizons mission to Pluto.

    Of course many amateur astronomers and members of the public opposed this controversial decision then and continue to oppose it now. This is NOT a joke. The decision was political, not scientific, done in a process that violated the IAU’s own bylaws. Additionally, many planetary scientists had no say in this whatsoever, as they are not IAU members.

    With the Pluto affair, the general public saw scientists at their worst–motivated by personal, self-centered concerns, engaging in back-biting and deception, and creating a definition further clouds the issue of what is a planet and makes no sense by saying dwarf planets are not planets at all.

    Interestingly, PZ and his supporters continue to deny the ongoing existence of a controversy over Pluto. This is only one of many situations in which they all parrot the same view in a frightening type of groupthink that is as dogmatic in its nature as the right wing extremists they are fighting against.

    The Pluto issue does matter to the public, and it is a perfect example of scientists communicating poorly both with the public and with other scientists. That is why there are still major efforts underway to either overturn the demotion or ignore it altogether in favor of a broader definition of planet that encompasses any non-self-luminous spheroidal body orbiting a star.

    • newenglandbob
      Posted July 15, 2009 at 2:57 pm | Permalink

      The Pluto issue does matter to the public…

      Probably half the public think that this is the pluto that matters and much of the other half know very little.

  45. Ichthyic
    Posted July 14, 2009 at 11:22 pm | Permalink

    Their main call is to train a new generation of scientists who are good not only at research, but at interacting with politicians, Hollywood movie producers, and the public.

    strange thing is, this has already been attempted, many times. I myself was a part of the organization that tried to form a federally funded organization that would serve this function in large part, called the National Institute for the Environment*. A large purpose of which would have been to facilitate science communication both to congress and to the general public.


    while there was always SOME support from congressionals, always enough to introduce a bill, at least, there was never enough support to even get it to a floor vote. After two years, I went back to studying sharks.

    *now called the National Council for Science and the Environment.

    • J.J.E.
      Posted July 15, 2009 at 12:10 am | Permalink

      Oh dear lord, I used to help maintain the NCSE site (the *other* NCSE, not Scott’s organization). I sure hope that the hideous pages aren’t from code written by me. But if it were, my excuse is: “I was young and I needed the money.”

      One of my old bosses is even still on the Whois listing. What a weird trip back into the past.

  46. sailor1031
    Posted July 15, 2009 at 5:47 am | Permalink

    I really think Kirschenbaum and Mooney would get their message across to their intended target audience if they weren’t so strident. It’s starting to hurt my ears, frankly, and so I’m tuning them out.

    • Michael K Gray
      Posted July 15, 2009 at 6:27 am | Permalink

      Ah yes, the New Accomodationists ARE strident!

      • articulett
        Posted July 15, 2009 at 8:48 am | Permalink

        Shrill, really. And militant!

        They are surely hurting “the cause”.

  47. Posted July 15, 2009 at 7:13 am | Permalink

    I like beautiful blogs!

  48. Posted July 15, 2009 at 11:39 am | Permalink

    The reason scientific illiteracy, or more to the point, the disregard of science in forming oppinions, matters more in the US than elsewhere is illustrated by a comment I read either in another blog, or in a comment on another blog.

    Someone from the UK said that over there they would not have the same problem with evolution as we have here. If some school official wanted to teach creationism in the public schools a controversy might get started, but before long some Oxford Don would come down and tell them why they are wrong, and that would be the end of it.

    In the US we have this goofy egalitarian idea that everyone is not only entitled to an opinion, but that all opinions are equally valuable.

    That’s why science illiteracy in the US is such a problem. You try to explain the science, and get a reply like “Well that’s your opinion. I disagree.”

  49. Niket
    Posted July 16, 2009 at 12:26 am | Permalink

    I am a faculty in India. For eight years, from 1999 to 2007, I did my PhD and postdoc in US. So, I guess I can add my two cents to M&K’s claim:

    “The United States stands on the verge of falling behind other nations such as India and China in the race to lead the world in scientific endeavor in the twenty-first century.”

    The rest of this reply is a bit tangential to the main point of Jerry’s blog-post.

    A Chinese-born colleague of mine and I were recently discussing that the governments of the two countries are interested in increasing the “scientific manpower”. That does not necessarily translate into scientific “brainpower”.

    Perhaps, one hopes, that with a good amount of critical mass, the quality of research will soon take off. Especially, research in India and China is not as affected by policies and funding decisions (by NSF, NIH etc.) as they are in US. However, as the quantity of PhDs granted increases in India, we do not know if this will remain as true in the future. As of now, I see no “threat” to US’s position as a scientific hub.

    Secondly, those of us who work with folks in US think of research as a collaborative enterprise. If Americans were not unduly worried about UK or Germany becoming a scientific hub, why ought you be worried about India or China doing so? In fact, Jerry sums it up the best when he said: “I think that the spread of quality science throughout the world, which will inevitably bring other countries closer to us, can only be good for us all.”

    And a final point: there is quite a bit of change in how India views educational opportunity in US. When I was an undergrad in the 1990s, there was a lot of talk about “brain drain” — students educated from taxpayer’s money in India (my fees were a paltry US$200 per annum for four years) getting MS/PhD in US and working in US, thus adding to American economy and brainpower. Now that the number of students going for PhD in US from IITs (and other top universities) has fallen, we are now worried that folks coming back to India after a world-class scientific education might soon dry up. Going for higher education in developed world is now seen as a good thing.

    In summary: US is indeed a mecca for scientific research; India/China catching up is a good thing, not a threat; both parties benefit from exchange of students, ideas and efforts.

  50. Posted July 22, 2009 at 7:28 am | Permalink

    Most atheists are simply up on their ivory tower bellowing out that they’re absolutely right, their method is absolutely right and those who don’t listen to them “don’t get it” or, as Dawkins says “stupid.” What makes him and others like him absolutely sure they are right? Isn’t science about inquiry not imposing of ideas, theories, etc? Or has science become a dogma? What makes their materialism right? How can they prove they are right? They can’t, except by telling us to accept their hypothesis as right, as the only way. Further, why should religious people accept these scientists when all they do is berate and attack them? The issue is not about some “conspiracy” to silence atheists; the issue is about respectfully stating your views. Atheists, however, seem to think they have to be extremists to get their point to the “dull” masses. It’s ironic that these new atheists scream about needing to kill religion and then say religion is a danger to science. It’s clear that these atheists have an agenda, to program the masses with their dogma, their views, their materialism. These atheists are weak and scared that the religious will undermine their work, their beliefs, their lifestyles. Hitchens was asked by Todd Friel if Hitchens’ vitriolic attack against religion is because he doesn’t want to be accountable to God to which he replied “I think that is highly probable, yes.” Ultimately, for all their self righteous attitudes, these atheists are just men and thus fallible. Just a final note, atheists link religion with irrationality but how rational is it to state that it is ok to murder people for their beliefs? That’s not a religious person saying it, that was Sam Harris. Further, one comment above noted that in the UK talk of creationism wouldn’t be allowed,yet a recent report said that about 50% of Britons believe in creationism. In the US, while they may not believe in creationism, 62% of scientists in the natural sciences believe in God. Yet religion is the big bad virus? No, your hatred and ignorance is.

    • Aquaria
      Posted November 8, 2009 at 5:38 am | Permalink

      62% of scientists are not Xian.

      40% are religious. But even that does not mean they are all Christian. How arrogant of you to assume such.

      CITATION, or STFU.

      This is the problem with fundie nutbars–they make bizarre assertions and even outright lie without providing any evidence to support their nonsense.

      Put up or shut up.

      Oh, why bother? Let’s just call you what you are: Liar.

  51. Posted December 18, 2009 at 10:08 pm | Permalink

    I must say at the outset,that these comments are the most well written I have seen in a long time.I guess that roughly correlates with the fact that not one of them is by a creationist or ID type.I would like to get to the issue of why people believe untrue things so strongly.Its cultural to a large extent.Fear of shunning by their community.There is also the idea that many of the promises of religion are just so dammed cool-ESP,Eternal life,lovepeaceandhappiness,etc.I guess you could say Marx full commentary about the conditions people face in the face of godless capitalism (which I can assure you from personal experience is one mean sonofabitch)is really accurate.Also,I have found from reading some of the sites (Answers in Genesis )that they are really pretty good at obfuscating.I find myself getting convinced,and need to get cured by reading you guys.I quess Im just not as smart as some of you guys.When I read Victor Stengers book God the failed hypothesis,I found myself lost when he explained the cosmology.When I read cosmologists talk about the Universe being flat or when stenger claims the energy of the universe is exactly zero,Im thinking what the **** are they talking about?and that is from somebody who totally gets it that the bible is nonsense.You can see when scientists go off on tangents like this they they are wasting our time.I heard a fellow worker of mine once say that he thinks they dont know what they are talking about.Hes a right wing Jesus freeak IDiot,who thinks that animals are here for peoples use(he once said so explicitly)Try telling that to a black widow spider.What exactly is Gods plan for the black widow spider to serve humanity.But having said that,I have to agree with him on that comment about cosmologists.It does indeed seem sometimes to the uninitiated that they dony know what the**** they are talking about.And I am sure that you will all agree that there are a great deal of unknowns about the history of life,and the universe.I find myself looking at my body and wondering how did it manage to come together the way it does.I have read nothing in the scientific literature that completely explains how it all happened.I have always said that there is no scientist or religious dogma on the face of the earth that can explain the mystery of existence.Yes it seems there is no purpose to life.Its just a deep mystery that we may never be able to explain.

10 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. […] Unscientific Unscientific America. Part 1. In Unscientific America, Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum (hencefore M&K) assert that America is awash in a tsunami […] […]

  2. […] My guess is that the author of this article is still smarting over getting his book slammed by a “new atheist”. […]

  3. […] Why I think honest science cannot be reconciled with religion & religion is largely to blame for science illiteracy After a number of blogs now discussing Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum’s (M&K) position in their blog and in their latest book as well as discussing the continuing scientific debate over whether science necessarily conflicts with religion, whether scientists should bluntly criticize religion, and whether outspoken scientific atheists are responsible for increasing the scientific illiteracy by alienating believers, I decided to summarize my position. This comes after what I feel was latest PZ Myers’ complete demolishing of M&K’s position and Jerry Coyne’s review of their book. […]

  4. The Baby And The Snowblower…

    Unscientific America from Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum has been getting a bit of buzz and has opened a few discussions about religious accommodationists in the pro-science and pro-secular communities. Here’s my take, with one bad metaphor…

  5. […] there’s been a lot of talk about Chris Mooney’s and Sheril Kirshenbaum’s latest book, Unscientific America. I have […]

  6. […] Coyne began to review our book, and strongly misstated our views. While we won’t respond to him on every detail, we’ll […]

  7. […] Unscientific America, as an example of this debate. The book has predictably been lauded or derided depending on which side of this debate a given reviewer is on but, regardless of your personal […]

  8. […] science of ballyhoo”. Lets beware of the this science. I suggest everyone starts by reading Unscientific America, about a populace that do not really belive in […]

  9. […] the review first came out in August, we were surprised to see it, as Coyne had already attacked our book online, and we had felt compelled to blog a response that corrected several of his errors and […]

  10. […] the book had mentioned. Despite the book’s rather moderate stance, discussions (see here, here, and here for a sampling) between both the authors and New Atheist bloggers got ridiculously […]

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